The carpenter and the pyromaniac

A very familiar story: a creationist is told that her views are unsupported by any legitimate science, and in reply she rattles off a list of creationist “scientists”.

Here we are told by a creationist housewife — as she describes herself — defending her belief that the Giant’s Causeway is only as old as the Bible says it is, a claim which assumes, of course, that there is a definite chronology in the Bible which can be used to date the age of the earth, and that this chronology, such as it is, supersedes all other forms of chronology, because the Bible is, after all, the inerrant word of God. In response to Richard Dawkins claim that reputable scientists all agree that the earth is billions of years old, our doughty housewife responds with: “That’s a blatant lie,” And then she lists four “scientists” who accept the creationist dating of the age of the earth (and she might well have named more, because, if you google these names, you end up on sites with many more).

The word “scientist” is simply a label, and if you ignore its meaning, you can stick it on anything. I’ve always considered a scientist as someone who follows a rational program of investigation of the real world, and that the word describes someone carrying out a particular and critical process of examination. But apparently, to people with no well-informed knowledge of its meaning, “science” and “scientist” are just tags you stick on really smart people who reach a conclusion you like, or who have done the academic dance to get a Ph.D. as a trophy to stick on the end of your name.

That’s a shame.

Let me explain the difference with an analogy.

A carpenter is a person who practices a highly skilled trade, carpentry, to create new and useful and lovely things out of wood. It is a non-trivial occupation, there’s both art and technology involved, and it’s a productive talent that contributes to people’s well-being. It makes the world a better place. And it involves wood.

A pyromaniac is a person with a destructive mental illness, in which they obsess over setting things on fire. Most pyromaniacs have no skill with carpentry, but some do; many of them have their own sets of skills outside of the focus of their illness. Pyromania is destructive and dangerous, contributes nothing to people’s well-being, and makes the world a worse place. And yes, it involves wood, which is a wonderful substance for burning.

Calling a creationist a scientist is as offensive as praising a pyromaniac for their skill at carpentry, when all they’ve shown is a talent for destroying things, and typically have a complete absence of any knowledge of wood-working. Producing charcoal and ash is not comparable to building a house or crafting furniture or, for that matter, creating anything.

You can’t call any creationist a scientist, because what they’re actively promoting is a destructive act of tearing down every beautiful scrap of knowledge the real scientists have acquired.


  1. #1 Mage Duley
    July 13, 2012

    Unfortunately, to tell the difference is hardly black and white. For example two words: Francis Collins. President Obama’s appointment to head the NIH.
    Jerry Coyne had some good perspective on this. So how is a lowly misguided housewife supposed to figure out who is a “reputable” scientist when even we can’t.

  2. #2 harold
    July 13, 2012

    Mage Duly –

    As an atheist who believes that freedom of religion and conscience for all is the best system, and that the idea of replacing unofficial bigotry against atheists with real discrimination against people who hold private religious beliefs, I am repelled, disgusted, and appalled by Sam Harris for his original ideas, and by you as one who thoughtlessly parrots those ideas.

    It’s very simple. In a system where we both respect each others’ rights, we both have rights. In a system where we don’t, and the one who has the most power transiently prevails, neither of us ever has any secure rights.

    I disagree with Francis Collins’s religious views, and find some of them illogical. It’s also obvious that there are equally good candidates to run the NIH, who are atheists, or who have never spoken about religion (and there are also probably some good candidates who are even more overtly religious than Collins).

    However, his religious ideas have nothing to do with his work, and the idea that he should be discriminated against professionally on the basis of his religious beliefs is utterly appalling.

    You may oppose bigoted religious authoritarianism because it’s “religious”. I oppose it because it’s bigoted and authoritarian.

  3. #3 harold
    July 13, 2012

    Mage Duly –

    Some apologies for the harsh language, which you probably don’t deserve (Sam Harris may or may not).

    However, the opposite of discrimination against A is not a transient switch to discrimination against B in favor of A. It is absence of discrimination.

    If Francis Collins tries to promote using magic or faith to do science, I’ll be the first to say he should be fired, but he hasn’t done that before.

  4. #4 Brad Heaton
    July 14, 2012

    Nice try. This is a common argument used to try to discredit those who disagree with the “popular” view rather than debate the topic on the merits of the available evidence. The entire premise of your argument also contains a logical fallacy.

    The fact is that ALL people are biased in their view of the world. Whatever preconceived ideas or beliefs they have (worldview) are brought into whatever work they do. It is impossible to have the views that you do (as an atheist and evolutionist) and then remain completely unbiased as a scientist. If any evidence did not match the hypothesis the evidence would be thrown out as contaminated or as an “anomaly” – or not even considered at all.

    Since you also describe the achievement of a Ph.D. in science as just a “label” (from any University) you are in fact discrediting the qualifications of ALL scientists since you claim the measure currently used by accredited universities to award these degrees is flawed; and, instead another deeply biased measure (requiring a belief in atheism and evolution) is required for any person to be awarded such qualifications.

    Using your flawed logic, I could just as easily state that no evolutionist should be considered to be a “real” scientist because they are far too biased by their worldview to be in any way objective about the evidence. Combined with your exclusion of creationists, that would leave…well, no one who is qualified to be a scientist.

    Rather than using straw man arguments, or brushing aside any evidence contrary to your own worldview, try debating the creation scientists on the merits of the evidence. You may find that task a tad more difficult…

  5. #5 bjedwards
    July 14, 2012


    You are welcome to provide “evidence”, anytime, anywhere. Just remember that you actually have to stick to definition of “evidence”, that you don’t get to make up your own rules.

    That neither you nor anyone else has ever presented one iota of evidence for the existence of your deity should weigh heavily on you, but it doesn’t. You don’t care about evidence. You don’t care about truth. You don’t care that Creationists are the least ethical of all Christians.

    But we’re happy to give you the opportunity to redeem yourself in the eyes of humanity. Give us your evidence, please.

  6. #6 Brad Heaton
    July 14, 2012

    @bdedwards If this is going to be an evidence based discussion, then please provide your evidence for the following:

    1. Evidence that Creationists are the least ethical of all Christians (as you stated).
    2. Evidence that God does not exist.
    3. Evidence to explain the large amount of archeological, historical, and DNA evidence for the authenticity of the Bible (A couple to start you off and

  7. #7 Les Lane
    July 14, 2012

    Most of these “scientists” are in fact people with science degrees who practice apologetics rather than science. In fact starting with a conclusion and collecting a group of scientists that support the conclusion is classic apologetics. The scientific approach is to randomly pick 20 eminent geologists (combustion science doesn’t qualify) and solicit their judgements.

  8. #8 Phil
    July 14, 2012

    PZ, I disagree. You can be a scientist in a different field and still be a creationist.

  9. #9 AndyR
    July 14, 2012

    An analogy: As an illustrator of science subjects by trade and a lifelong student of art, I often see the term “artist” bandied about rather loosely. Creating “art” doesn’t make one an “artist” and doing “science” doesn’t always make the practitioner a “scientist”.

  10. #10 Will
    July 14, 2012

    Phil, I have to at least partially disagree with you. In order to be a young-earth creationist, you have to systematically ignore or dispute many fundamental results in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy. Old-earth creationists at least seem to accept things like radiometric dating, but they still dispute the tremendous amount of evidence for evolution via natural selection, thus denying the framework underlying modern biology.

  11. #11 Nerf
    July 14, 2012

    If you’re still a creationist after finishing a masters / doctorate program at an accredited school, then may chaos have mercy upon your mass.

    I can think of nothing that would be more grievously harmed by knowledge than that dogmatic presupposition.

  12. #12 Chris
    July 14, 2012

    This seems a bit like the “no true Scots” argument that Christians use to distance themselves from other less moral Christians. They say,”oh, those Westburo kooks are not real Christians”
    I mean, I understand your point, but aren’t self imposed labels often a sound means by which to establish a group? Unless there is some governing body that mandates appropriate tile usage, what else could this poor housewife use to differentiate scientists who actually practice the scientific method?

  13. #13 Ruth
    July 14, 2012

    I think that Myers article illustrates that the answer is by distinguishing between those scientist who practice the scientific method those that don’t. His article also seems to suggest that the ‘governing’ body doesn’t manage to weed out those that don’t and that by making critical comments such as those made on this blog helps to expose them; This ‘poor housewife’ chooses to reference unscientific ‘scientists’ because, no doubt their opinions align with her own. The other alternative is as you suggest that she is a hapless victim of her ignorance and the absence of easy, official labels such as scientist and ‘crackpot’…although how did she identify those ‘scientists’ if not by observing their difference in approach (to the practice of science) as distinct from other scientists. I am loath to entertain the idea that someone could intelligently arrive at this conclusion but some people have an amazing capacity to compartmentalize.

  14. #14 J.T. Morgan
    July 15, 2012

    Perhaps the little classroom professor with some book lernin aint’t up to date on modern reality. Quite a number of scientists with high degrees are creationists. There are equally as many who doubt the globalist scheme you call global warming as well. Your false religion of darwinism has not ensnared as many as you would like and I suspect it will remain that way until the end of time. there will always be free men who think outside of the manstream.

    As for charles darwin and the comical P.Z. myers, they are both a life support system for a hairy face. Now, that’s evolution.

    I will not comply. I refuse to bow to the altar of darwin.

  15. #15 Gold
    July 15, 2012

    Regardless of whether I agree with your point, that was a terrible analogy.

    I had to say it. Someone had to.

  16. #16 Herman Cummings
    July 16, 2012

    If pastors, priests. rabbis, and “so called” Christians
    would stop their false (old Earth) and foolish (young Earth)
    teachings, and start promoting the truth of Genesis (Observations
    of Moses), then there would hardly be any room for the ridiculous
    teaching of evolution.

    Collectively, Bible believers are so “blind”, that their approach
    to Genesis is a joke. Instead of seeking the truth, they continue
    to support the current lies and foolishness of Creationism. Genesis
    does not have any “Creation accounts”. When you keep telling a
    person that their car is running out of gas, and they refuse to look
    at the fuel gauge and go to the gas station, you begin to wonder
    how “dumb” they are.

    Herman Cummings

  17. #17 Ronald Kappes
    East Quogue, NY
    July 19, 2012

    Great way to approach this issue that I’ll use myself, but It won’t convince a true believer.

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